Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Turn A Deaf Ear: Cliff Richard and The Shadows: "Don't Talk To Him"

But not all UK pop is as benign as it might seem; in Liverpool, it's amplified nursery rhymes, but down in London...

...a certain paranoia is taking hold. Boyfriend and girlfriend must be apart (why? it's never explained) and he is telling her not to talk to "him." Just who is this man? Why is he so unreliable, so disruptive? Cliff all but says that he is a liar, a rogue, a man who simply cannot be trusted. Cliff's love is true, but "this guy" (strange for an era that liked names that he's not even named) is presumably telling our heroine that if he hears that he, the redoubtable Cliff, is going out with Sue or Jean that she isn't to believe him. So much drama, paranoia, all of it done with The Shadows' ease in the back (they are of course on Cliff's side in this triangle) that we might begin to wonder if Cliff isn't being a little bit unreliable himself - why doesn't he just go to the other guy and tell him off? Why can't he trust his own girl, to whom he is so (so he says) true? This song offers far more questions than it can answer and Cliff almost sings it as if he is singing not to a girl but to a wayward pet. He means well, you can hear that, but this insecurity (perhaps a more accurate word than paranoia) is edged here with condescension, as if this girl cannot be trusted to know truth from falsehood, has no intuition to know what is what. This is, however, the era of songs like "My Boyfriend's Back" wherein the girl who has been the unwanted object of another man's affections presumably scrams before said boyfriend returns to give him a black eye. A girl cannot tell him to get lost, as she is weak; all she can do is just hang up the phone or perhaps go to the bathroom to fix her make-up for a long time.

But the issue of mistrust here then widens into a world where a world leader was just assassinated, the Cold War has already polarized many and paranoia indeed is rampant, and a certain degree of innocence is lost, convictions are strengthened for some and for others they weaken. As for Cliff, when we return to him he will be trusting and even hapless once more, and by then pop and indeed music will have jumped fully into the multicolored flashy era known as the Swinging Sixties. But for now all is still beehives and pastels, twinsets and anxiety. A more innocent era, perhaps, but then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

That's What Hits Are Made Of: The Searchers: "Sugar and Spice"

And now, for a moment, a step away from the sturm-und-drang of US pop to the somewhat more placid waters of UK pop. The Searchers were one of those revolving-door-membership Liverpool groups that played in Hamburg as well as their hometown, sticking a bit more closely to their skiffle origins than their compatriots The Beatles; and thus they were eagerly sought after by agents & managers hungry for Merseybeat. This song was written by their producer (not that they knew; he used the fine pseudonym Fred Nightingale) Tony Hatch and while it's not exactly going to win any poetry contests, it does its sprightly best (high, close harmonies; plucky ringing guitars, folk-chirpy melody) simply to show the joy a man can have in having his sweetheart, his honey, that love can be as simple as a nursery rhyme and be charming and even poignant for that. To a nation that was still rebuilding some sense of itself and finding its feet musically, as in so many other ways, The Searchers were part of the morale-bolstering Merseybeat tide that became the first wave of the British Invasion (they were the second group to have a hit in the US in '64). That the tide would be welcomed at all is due to an event outside of the literal boundaries of the charts. Merseybeat is reaching its peak here, marking a time when songs this innocent and direct could be big hits. That is about to change, however, as we near the end of 1963.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Apexes, Real and Imagined: The Crystals: "Then He Kissed Me"

"Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children."

"The Munich Mannequins" Sylvia Plath

"That is the irony of it all - the irony that distinguishes great literature - it is all so ordinary."

Kenneth Rexroth, introduction to More Classics Revisited

The story is simple; the narrative, straightforward. He and she meet; they dance; he kisses her; she lets him know she loves him, after a time, and he says he loves her too; she is accepted by his parents, they get married, he kisses her again. The End.

The song circles around, like the thump-ka-thump of the heart, building in intensity as the courting dance begins; this could be another century, as she looks at him and decides to give him a chance. The sky is dark, the stars are bright, everything is in focus and yet blurry at the same time; there is a ghostly quality about this record which is in part due to an accident in the studio (making it more echo-laden than it was supposed to be)...

...and that odd quality is only really apparent upon re-hearing the song and realizing it's sung from a wife's point of view. This is not a girl group staple, per se; usually the girl is massively crushing on or missing her guy, with the occasional foray into anticipating The Big Day when she and he will be actually married. (And there are of course the many songs wherein she loves him but he doesn't love her but OH she will make him see.) But a song from a wife's point of view - even a newlywed one - is rare. The drama of the song is that he kisses her, but the bravado of it is that she is the first to say "I love you" and just from this one piece of the story we know that they will be happy. La La Brooks sings it as if she has lived it, or perhaps as if she is telling this story to girls as if to say, you see, it can be done. But the production is, as Nik Cohn put it, a "heroic combustion" - "Through multitracking, he (Spector) made his rhythm section sound like armies, turned the beat into a murderous massed cannonade." Why such apocalyptic noise for what is an utterly normal story? Is it just the drama of being a teenager finally reflected in music, the zinging pounding insomniac blood of the courtship itself?

I wish I could say that this song (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) was art, but it is Art; that is because it isn't just about love, but about death.

Now, I am not saying there is anything deathly in this song; but the main riff is somehow both optimistic and settled, and no amount of production can deter its comfortable if slightly unsettling repetition. No, the death is in the woman's life; for in the girl group world (which is, to say, the real world), once you are married then your life is by definition set; set as in matched, paired, and ultimately fixed. There is no more story, just as there is no more story after any fairy tale's happy details of weddings and contentment. Whether this is exactly positive or not I am not sure, but in 1963 the second wave of feminism was only just beginning, and the debate about just what being a wife means is probably as old as the custom (if I can put it that way) of marriage itself. The plain upshot of all this is that the woman who sings here so happily and fondly has no more to sing, her tale is done, at the end she remembers the kiss as if it was the beginning and the end, as if it was an infinity of kisses (which she hopes will continue; again the explosive production bolsters this hope, as if it would ever dare not to come true).

In all this I have been trying to invoke within me Larkin's Law, the one that says look at the work, not the man. Phil Spector was at the apex, the top, when he produced this, a bigshot at 22 and not at all shy about it; to read about him in Cohn's piece it seems as if he is taking revenge on the world by making the loudest and densest music this side of Wagner, the wall of sound both pleasingly and overwhelmingly there and at other times near-oppressive, as if there is no way you could escape it, even if you tried. I am trying hard to concentrate on that and not the perfectionist personality who would construct it, why he would construct it and for that matter what happened long after the apex; though I shouldn't say 'long after' as Spector fell victim to The Beatles' runaway success as much as anyone (he did end up producing them in the end in such a way that Paul left after hearing his song having had sonic golden-syrup-with-cream topping put on "The Long and Winding Road" and really, who can blame him). Ordinarily I would pity him but I cannot do that; Spector should have lived a very different life in the post-Beatles world, but he too was fixed, set in his ways, too used to bodyguards and guns and life apart from the real, pulsing world where the ordinary was elevated to Art by him and others.

As with all Art there is indeed something almost instantaneous about this song, as if it has always existed and only now is being sung. It spirals up and up like two birds in spring and then simply disappears, the screen going black as the picture fades out...only to, unexpectedly, come back in at the end of this song, as if to say, this may be the end but this is how it began, and who knows, the seeds of rebirth may be sown here too, just as she once could not wait to see him again, to be with him, to hear those bells and be kissed. That she knows that that moment is not the apex, but the beginning of her new life is the true happiness here, and elsewhere.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Don't Talk To Me About Love: Cliff Richard: "It's All In The Game"

There are certain moments when everything comes into focus, almost too sharply, the contrasts are almost too precise and vivid to look at for very long...and in this case, the two songs - this one at two and the other at one - set out the differing paths of music (at least chart music) for pretty much the rest of the decade.

What is most interesting is that the struggle here, if it even is a struggle, isn't between two generations but two whole ways of thinking about music itself. On one side is the new, the brash, the massive "YEAH" of The Beatles (whose "She Loves You" prevented Cliff from getting to the top); on the other is The Man plc, who told Cliff repeatedly that this whole rock 'n' roll thing was a kid's game and that to really make it in "the industry" he had to branch out, to become an all-around entertainer*, and this gift would give him a kind of immortality. Clearly Cliff had already chosen this route (if in fact it hadn't been chosen for him by his label) and thus here he is, doing a song whose music predated the birth of his own producer, Norrie Paramor. In the face of the Huge Inevitable that was The Beatles (after this song Beatlemania, which had been building up all summer, simply exploded), Cliff and Co. may have felt that the best way to deal with it was to retreat, retreat into a past that was theirs for the taking. The song is barely sung as such but quietly pronounced; he sounds not as if he's been through the ringer romantically (though of course he had; Jet Harris had left The Shadows because his wife and Cliff had an affair - how much of this the public knew I don't know) but has been disappointed himself too many times and is now content to sing about love rather than experience it. That may seem like a harsh judgement, but Cliff was already paying the price for having a loyal female following (nicknamed The Screaming Nellies) - no girlfriend - and so whenever he sighs or moans it always sounds as if there is something vital and messy being avoided - or is that just plain old English reserve?

In the face of the winking knowingness and good humor of The Beatles, Cliff does his best (and this was also his biggest hit in the US at the time); but the yawning maw that was "the industry" was indeed making him immortal, bit by bit, separating him and those of his "ilk" from the vagaries of music, if not rough, vernacular life itself. But, I wonder, who could change him and give him back, rescue him from The Man plc? That will be answered in time, but when we get back to him, it will be with something much creepier than this.

*Clearly Cliff's career in the UK was a copy of Elvis Presley's, right down to making reasonably good movies and churning out hit after hit to an admiring and fervently loyal following; he may have felt it unfair that he had to go head-to-head with The Beatles, but then so did Elvis, with middling results. Cliff has been married to "the game" (as Tim Westwood would put it) for so long, but does he get his due? Some may think that the metaphoric worm has turned over the decades, but if so, where are the deluxe repackagings of Cliff's albums from the 60s? Hm...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Manchester Enters: Freddie and the Dreamers: "I'm Telling You Now"

In popular culture there are some places that generate certain sounds; you hear a group or artist and you can just tell where they are from. The closer you are to the place, the easier it is; thus, if you were from the UK you'd know that Freddie and the Dreamers were from Manchester (clearly where the ravening horde of agents and managers went once Liverpool was picked clean), but your average American wouldn't know a Liverpudlian from a Mancunian, and so this song was a hit all over again in the US two years after it was here, under the general understanding they were Merseybeat when in fact they weren't; but with such unselfconscious exuberance, there was no mistake they were part of the massive British Invasion of the time.

Freddie and the Dreamers are Mancunian in that they have a lead singer who did a wacky dance, was not in the least conventionally 'sexy' and wore glasses. It was his spirit (and the band's co-ordinated dancing) that made them so successful, even if musically this is not exactly Lennon/McCartney*; the Other here is maybe not able to understand he loves her (or to understand what he's saying, altogether) for all the standing-jumping-jacks Freddie is doing. But then Mancunians have a way of reminding everyone they can sing and dance and not be mistaken for anyone else; a delightful awkwardness which is matched by confidence and persistence. Though swept up in Merseybeat as the UK was, Manchester stakes its claims to greatness in a typically oblique manner as if to say: "You think this is good? Wait and see what we have in store."

*Freddie and the Dreamers' effect on The Beatles was interesting; after they copied the arrangement of cover The Beatles did at the Cavern Club ("If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody") and had a hit with it, The Beatles realized they had to start writing their own songs, songs presumably too complex for just anyone to hear once and then cover themselves. Thus began the long period of hide-and-go-seek that The Beatles played with pop music, never really resting in once place long enough to be caught. (That a song by Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas kept this off - "Bad To Me" by Lennon/McCartney - is one thing; that "She Loves You" was released the same week shows just how ambitious they were.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Strand of Sand: The Shadows: "Atlantis"

This somehow reminds me of the last weekend before it's too cold to go to the beach; to sit and picnic; to happily just gad about, getting lost and then finding your way. It reminds me of these things because, as big as The Shadows were, the tide (so to speak) was turning against them. They had lost Meehan and Harris (replaced by Brian Bennett and Brian "Licorice" Locking, both from Marty Wilde's band) and thus had also lost some of the energy that made them so popular in the first place. "Atlantis" is a sprightly song that sounds almost ready-made for Winnipeg boys Young and Bachman to practice for hours on end, not to mention many others, but it is also a bit too polite, even as a song about a long-lost probably (how can anyone know?) mythical water kingdom can be.

The whole thing sounds unreal, Marvin's guitar as liquid as can be, the soothing strings a song that doesn't even sound like the 60s, or at least my understanding of the 60s; I don't know if The Shadows were at all envious, say, of the Surfaris (about to have a hit with this) or The Chantays (who had just had a hit as well). It could simply be that the saltwater-in-your-face abandon of The Surfaris or the hang-ten cool of The Chantays were simply beyond the experience of The Shadows; or perhaps it just wasn't their style, or that they were produced by Norrie Paramor, not a man given to adventure as much as George Martin or Joe Meek (how would they have sounded produced by either of these men I leave up to you). The neatness and tidiness that served them well as it could in the late 50s/early 60s was beginning to be beside the point; of course they still had hits after this (and remain popular to this day - witness their successful tour with Cliff a while back). But it is poignant that I get to them when they are still popular but are about to be eclipsed by many groups who were inspired by them, from The Beatles on down. I can only salute them as pioneers, once and future kings of British rock, imitated and copied but never really duplicated.

Monday, June 13, 2011

People Who Know People: Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas: "Do You Want To Know A Secret?"

One of the continuing threads in the charts of the 60s - starting very successfully here - is the Beatles album track being covered by another group and made into a hit single. I don't know of any other group being covered so much in their own time, with (of course!) their permission and indeed help; Billy and his band were from Liverpool themselves and thus knew The Beatles when no one would give them the time of day, and so were more than happy to help their pals out with not just already-recorded songs but songs they had written but didn't, for whatever reason, want to record themselves. Other groups may have been jealous of handsome Billy and his tremendous luck, but Billy could definitely sing and The Dakotas could definitely play and this song survives the transition from shadowy flirtation to gleeful proclamation quite well. It seems to move closer and closer incrementally, just as "Can't Get Used To Losing You" seems to move further and further away, bit by bit. The joy is in knowing that the secret is theirs and theirs alone, and can be that way, deliciously, as if their new happiness was a particularly rich cake they can either eat and/or admire...

The generosity of The Beatles here is amazing, but even more amazing are the songs that were just left on albums for others to cover; I don't get to write about any of the others, but suffice it to say by the time The Beatles prove themselves to be more than a passing fad, it is a regular occurence, whenever an album of theirs was released to pounce on it for any songs that could easily be covered. Of course at this time there were almost no unsigned bands in Liverpool, as managers and agents went on a veritable gold rush of whatever they could find, and soon the charts were full of Merseybeat, produced by George Martin (as this was). (In almost too perfect timing, this was a hit around the time of the Profumo Affair, when secrets were spilled, lives changed, and the Sixties, as understood by many, really begin.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Woman in the Background: Jet Harris and Tony Meehan: "Scarlett O'Hara"

The past is sometimes just the past; I sometimes wonder why it is that people would ever worry about it being 'hunted' or 'mined' when the past is like a vast cave that in reality most people are happy to consign to, well, their own past. There have always been periods of unease that can create (later on) nearly inexplicable crazes for this decade or era or that; while other times collect dust, or are overshadowed.

Jet Harris and Tony Meehan left The Shadows - they were the rhythm section - and had immediate success with "Diamonds" (much later sampled by Chipmunk in a song that was about being aspirational without talking about pushing himself to the limit). The follow up was this, a Jerry Loudon composition that takes the Gone With The Wind heroine and makes her into something of a cool 60s "dolly bird." It is a jaunty instrumental, rocks just as hard as The Shadows could, with that cool man-about-town edge that Harris simply exuded (what is it about bass players?) - a cool that was unfortunately aided and abetted by his troubled life, including a chauffeur-driven limo accident that left him and his then-girlfriend Billie Davis in a mess, both physically and other ways (she was 17 at the time, he was married*).

As incredibly popular as Harris and Meehan were, it is a sad fact that they - and so many other UK acts from this time - are more or less forgotten** (save for Brian Matthew's Sounds of the Sixties) by what I call State Radio. There the past is lovingly and almost obsessively catalogued and enshrined; and yet perhaps this is part of the problem itself - the past as a museum cannot fly beyond the lives of those who remember the music in the first place, who were there. In popular received history The Beatles simply own the charts now, with everyone else running a poor second,

*In case it needs underlining, we are in the 60s now, when being a ladies' man was very much in vogue; how much embarrassment this caused I don't know, as keeping things secret was just as in vogue.

**Cliff Richard and The Shadows did do a tour and new album recently - a single of theirs scraped into the Top 40 for a week and left again, but the tour was a rip-roaring success. But they are the exception here.